JOEY MERLINO has regained his freedom - no strings attached - for the first time since 1999.
The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled in his favor yesterday, overruling a District Court judge who had ordered Merlino to serve another four months in prison for violating the terms of his probation on a 2001 racketeering conviction.
"He's out. He's a free man," Merlino's attorney, Edwin Jacobs, told the Daily News.
Merlino, 53, considered the current or former boss of the Philly mob, depending whom you ask, served about three months in a Miami prison after he was caught associating with mobster John "Johnny Chang" Ciancaglini at a Florida cigar bar last year.
At the time, Merlino was prohibited from associating with Ciancaglini because he was finishing up his probation on the racketeering conviction that had kept him in prison for about 12 years.
Jacobs had argued that the feds hadn't properly notified Merlino of the violation. A split appeals court sided with Jacobs today, but it has not yet issued its opinion with the rationale behind the decision.
Merlino, once known as "Skinny Joey," was believed to have been living in a halfway house or on house arrest and would have been cut loose early next month, even if the appeal was unsuccessful. Jacobs declined to say what Merlino's living arrangements had been prior to the ruling.
"He's done. Period," Jacobs said.
David Fritchey, chief of the Organized Crime Strike Force in the U.S. Attorney's Office in Philadelphia, said the ruling is largely a moot point.
"He served all of his time," Fritchey said. "To appeal it would mean we'd be arguing whether he should be under house arrest for another week, which is not worth anybody's time."
Merlino has reinvented himself as the maitre d' at a new Boca Raton restaurant that bears his name.
Fritchey declined to comment on rumors that Merlino is tied up in another federal investigation. The progress of that probe, and whether it will result in an indictment, is unclear.
For now, it appears that Merlino will return to his job working the front of the house at his Italian restaurant.
"And whatever that may entail," Fritchey said.